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Resources in the Debate Over Assisted Suicide

Is it ethical for a person with a terminal illness to take his or her own life? Recent (2013) studies suggest Americans are fairly evenly split on the question, with 45 percent saying it is morally acceptable and 48 percent saying it is not. Those polar positions extend into faith communities, where members are engaged in an intense debate about a range of life-ending issues, including this one. One core concern in the debate is the high cost of maintaining life during a person’s last year: as much as 30 percent of Medicare expenditures come in the last year, in part because modern medicine is able to sustain life for increasing periods of time, often through expensive intervention. Related ethical concerns include whether there can come a time when the elderly will be subjected, in their vulnerability, to subtle pressures to end their lives as a way to not “burden” the healthy with the expense of their effort to postpone their death. Some ethicists worry that if it becomes acceptable to encourage the aged to end their lives, that could gradually creep into other areas, such as people living with hopeless physical damage or mental deficiencies. Where are the boundaries to promoting or at least accepting, the notion of ending life when a person experiences limitations on their ability to fully express human capability? Does promoting prematurely ending life rule out the often-realized possibility that persons with diminished physical and mental capacity can continue to experience joy and find meaning, even in the midst suffering, by living out life to its natural end? For that matter, in an era of powerful medical interventions, can we say with certainty what constitutes a “natural” end?

Such concerns fuel the hesitancy of religious groups to endorse decisions to take one’s own life. It may also explain why a 2013 Pew study discovered that 66 percent of Americans said a patient should be allowed to take his or her own life if suffering with no hope of improvement, but were evenly divided on whether a doctor should be allowed to assist in the process. Religious affiliation was strongly correlated to respondents’ views. To date only a handful of U.S. states recognize the right to self-selected death, although that is sure to change. 

To help journalists explore the range of views on this topic, ReligionLink, an online resource provided by Religion Newswriters Association, a member organization that promotes quality religion reporting, prepared a comprehensive resource page on the issue of euthanasia, assisted suicide, and the right-to-die movement, with background material and links to recently-published articles and blog posts and to experts and organizations, including religious bodies, that advocate for and against euthanasia. Additional links lead to legal and religious decisions and surveys of public attitudes. For perspective on how faith communities embrace people with special needs, read our feature article offering “7 ways to improve a church’s inclusivity.”

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